Isle of Mull Diary - Part 1

Wednesday, June 09, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


I am back from the Isle of Mull and as you have probably gathered I wasn’t able to get an internet connection while I was there. It turns out that the house is too far away from an exchange even to get dial up. To make up for a barren couple of weeks on here I have lots to share as it was a simply amazing holiday both in terms of weather (14 days of sunshine) and the wildlife. I’ll start off with a couple of wordy posts detailing what I got up to, which will hopefully give me chance to sort through my pile of photos in the meantime. Enjoy.


After 600 miles and some eight hours of travelling, the sight of Oban and its ferry terminal was very welcome indeed. We had a couple of hours to kill before departure time which at most ferry terminals involves buying some last minute essentials and waiting in a queue. At Oban the shopping was still a necessity as we needed to pick up the meat and fresh produce that we would need on the island, but from there things take a different turn. After booking the car in for the ferry we were free to wander around Oban harbour until it was our time to board. Out on the water a small raft of Eider could be seen, still with the males around which is fortunate as I thought we would be too late to catch them this year. Even better than the Eider are the Black Guillemots that nest and breed in the harbour wall. We had seen a couple fly in and out of one particular hole so headed over. We were rewarded with one of the birds sitting at the entrance calling, allowing me to photograph the brilliant red colour of the inside of its mouth. My first Hooded Crow of the holiday was also on hand to reinforce that we had arrived in Scotland. They certainly look a lot larger and bulkier than our Carrion Crows.

The 40 minute ferry crossing signalled the true beginning of the holiday as we steamed out of Oban heading for Craignure on the Isle of Mull. A Common Sandpiper was sat on the rocks at the exit of the harbour along with a couple of Great Black Backed Gulls. The sea was almost a flat calm allowing us to see several more Black Guillemots as well as a couple of standard Guillemots during the crossing. While passing Lismore Lighthouse I also spotted the first Common Gull of the holiday as well as an unidentified flock of some twenty Terns.

Once landed on Mull another half hour drive and a battle with a dirt track found us safely at the house. Remarkably the sun was shining so after unpacking we went for a wander in the valley. It wasn’t long before the call of a Cuckoo could be heard. A little searching had it spotted in a nearby tree along with a Meadow Pipit for company. That didn’t last long though as the Pipit chased it off. Also in the same trees were a good number of singing Willow Warblers.

By now we had become aware that a rather impressive sea fog was slowly moving its way into shore. We jumped in the car to head around the coast to a place on the cliffs where I knew we would get a good view. I wasn’t wrong on that point but for reasons I wasn’t quite expecting. We looked over the edge to find two Golden Eagles not more than twenty metres away! One was sat in a tree while the other was busy feeding on a dead lamb. I rattled off a couple of pictures before backing away so as not to disturb them. An amazing sight and a proper welcome to the Isle of Mull.

Sunday started cloudy but quickly brightened up so we decided to walk around the coast from the abandoned village of Crackaig to Treshnish Point. The walk was very enjoyable and the birds put on a great show. Top billing has to go to another couple of Golden Eagles that despite the best efforts of the Hooded Crows were enjoying an early morning soar. We saw another three Cuckoos at various points, every time surrounded by Meadow Pipits. Wheatears are present here in massive numbers but I am sorry to say that we did not see a singe Stonechat. I fear that the very harsh winter this year has dented their numbers rather severely. A male Whinchat helped to make up for things on Treshnish farm, as did my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year and also a male Reed Bunting. A couple of sea watches delivered the expected Kittiwake, Fulmar and Gannet, but more unexpected was a single Puffin. These are rarely seen from the coast of Mull so was an added bonus for us. Also surprising to see was a Lesser Whitethroat back at the house. This was the last bird to be seen of the day however as the sea fog once again reared its head and completely enveloped the valley until dark.

By Monday morning the fog had thankfully cleared and the sun was once again blazing down. Feeling a bit tender from the day before some sun cream was in order before heading around the coast to Calgary from where we would walk to Caliach Point. The white sands of Calgary were as beautiful as ever and we had them pretty much all to ourselves. That is apart from the Sand Martins that nest in the dunes here. Another Cuckoo was calling from the woods near Calgary farmhouse with yet another seen out towards the point. A scan of the bay revealed lots of Shag and a Common Scoter before we spotted sight of some ripples in the water. A moment later two Otters appeared, rolling and playing in the water and seaweed before pulling themselves up on the rocks for some sunbathing. The water must have been too tempting though as they were soon back in. After that anything would have a job matching up but a couple of Great Skuas, three Manx Shearwater and two absolutely superb Northern race Golden Plovers in summer plumage at Caliach Point came close.

After all that walking Tuesday was officially designated as a rest day, which on my holidays mean we do slightly shorter walks and maybe visit a bit of civilisation. Port of call this time was to be Tobermory, one time home of the BBC children’s programme Balamory and unofficial capitol of the Isle of Mull. On the drive over we stopped off at the mudflats of Dervaig for a quick scan and picked up a group of forty five summer plumaged Dunlin feeding away feverishly. A pair of Greylag Geese had six new goslings as did a pair of Mallards. Other than that things were relatively quiet so we continued onwards. After stocking up on a few missing essentials in Tob (hard to imagine how we had forgotten anything given the amount of stuff we had packed into the car) we moved on to Aros Park at the other end of the bay. This used to be the planted gardens of Aros house until the familiar tale of debt and ultimate abandonment took their toll. Now they are fully restored and one of the best places to go on the island for woodland birds. Almost immediately we had a singing male Blackcap and a pair of Siskins as well as a couple of Goldfinch. All the Tits (Blue, Great, Coal and Long Tailed) put in an appearance before we found the stars of the show. Up one of the less used paths a series of high pitched calls alerted us to the presence of something. A quick eye on the part of my partner soon located the culprits to be a family group of Treecreepers. They were flying from tree to tree with at least one incidence of an adult feeding a juvenile taking place. I hadn’t realised that Treecreepers were even on the island so it was certainly an added bonus. Happy with our haul and feeling much rested we started the drive back to base camp. We hadn’t gone far before my other half indicated quite insistently that I should stop in the next passing place. Never wanting to be in the wrong I duly complied. Boy was I glad I did. Gliding in from the moorland was a magnificent male Hen Harrier, a first for us on the island. It headed towards us before banking sideward’s, displaying its full plumage, and disappearing out of site. A final stop above Dervaig at the standing stones failed to deliver on the hoped for Crossbills but White Wagtail and Mistle Thrush were nice additions.

On Wednesday we planned to visit the Sea Eagle hide on Loch Frisa, and had booked ourselves onto the one o’clock tour. We spent the morning at Croig where you are almost guaranteed to see Seals hauled out onto the rocks. The Seals were their as usual, as were a small raft of Eider and our first Great Northern Diver of the trip. As we moved to get a better view we were audibly accosted by a pair of Oystercatchers, and then by a pair of Redshanks. Obviously near a nest we retraced our steps and made our way to Loch Frisa. Now began the farce that was our Loch Frisa experience. Whether the person on the phone who took our booking got it wrong or we misheard, we were under the impression that the tour started from the Dervaig end of the loch. After waiting until half an hour past our allotted rendezvous we assumed that it had been cancelled and headed home. As it turns out the tours actually start from the Salen end of the loch on the other side of the island. Sorry Skye and Frisa but we will have to catch up next time. Seeing the local Golden Eagle soaring overhead as we arrived back helped to overcome our annoyance.

For anyone that knows Mull you may have noticed that so far we have only really visited the very north of the island. This is partly because this was where we were based but also because it is the part of the island that we know best. In order to explore a bit more widely we have made it a yearly tradition to drive around the whole island, seeing what we can spot from the roadside. In the past we have had very good results and as Thursday started with very heavy showers it seemed like the perfect opportunity. A female Whinchat at the end of the track was very nice and a male Pheasant at Torloisk added some colour to the grey as did our first and only Greenfinch on the island. A Yellowhammer, Great Northern Diver, Sedge Warbler and a large flock of Mergansers were all very welcome before the real action of the day started on the banks of Loch na Keal. For the last couple of years a White Tailed Sea Eagle has been nesting in the trees here and this year was no different. A couple of the island wildlife tour buses were already present when we arrived, just in time for the heavens to open. A brief respite though allowed just enough time for one of the Eagles to soar into the air, the sun catching its white head and tail perfectly. The nearby Hooded Crows were just dwarfed next to its bulk, really putting into perspective their size. As we continued around the island the weather did improve, allowing us to pick up new species in the shape of a Collared Dove and Curlew at Salen and a Black Headed Gull at Garmony. It makes a nice change for what we consider to be common birds at home to be such a challenge to find on Mull. The final highlight was another Sea Eagle nest near Loch Schridain. This time we were just in time to watch one of the birds arrive at the nest where the other was already sitting. I couldn’t see any sign of a chick bit I hope that they have been successful after the failure of the nest on Loch Frisa. On a slightly smaller scale we arrived home to find a couple of Twite feeding next to the front door. Now that doesn’t happen every day.

The next two days were spent around the valley where the house is, catching up on some of the local wildlife. A pair of Swallows had spent the week building a nest at the back of the house but could still be seen collecting mud from the nearby stream. I have never known Swallows to sit down as much as this pair, as they regularly fed from the ground and sat on one of the window lintels. A pair of Wheatears had built a nest in the walls of the garden house and were defending their territory vigorously, whilst a pair of Pied Wagtails were nesting in a gap at the top of the wall of the sun porch. We were again treated to some superb views of Golden Eagles soaring high above, as well as the return of the male Cuckoo and also what was to become a daily appearance at the house by the pair of Twite from the day before. Also arriving were my parents for their first visit to the island, along with a second week that promised visits to both Iona and the Treshnish Isles.

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